Speaking from her home in Norfolk in Britain, Rowe says Spare Rib grew out of the frustration felt by many women in support and production roles who felt they did not have a voice in the underground press. But she says she could never have launched the magazine in 1972 had she not spent years working as a secretary at OZ in Sydney and London.
“I saw the freedom, the opportunity to make satire, the (editors’) lack of reverence for authority,” she says. “I was still rather mentally restricted in terms of authority, but I could see how they were so funny and mentally stimulating. I learnt a lot from OZ — how to start a magazine and do it yourself. Where do you go for new ideas and thinking?”
Rowe and Louise Ferrier, who later worked extensively in indigenous art, are the best known of the women behind OZ but their careers have attracted far less attention than those of the men who dominated the Sydney and London versions of the magazine.
It is almost 50 years since Rowe, a shy 19-year-old typist, took the lift to a grimy office in Sydney’s Hunter Street to meet Richard Neville and Richard Walsh, the editors of Sydney OZ. It was late 1964 and the two, along with Martin Sharp, were appealing convictions for obscene publication. Rowe was an avid reader of the satirical magazine launched on April 1, 1963, and had answered an ad for a secretary. “They offered me the job, but my father said absolutely not,” she recalls. “I was not 21 yet and in those days you were, as it were, under the law of your father. Eventually both Richards went to see my father, and he said all right.”
Working at the magazine opened her eyes to a new world, but as Stephen Alomes says in his book When London Calls, Rowe soon found that “class snobbery and gender prejudice ensured that her role was menial; typing and sweeping the floor were higher priorities than research”.
It was the same story in London a few years later when she went to work as a secretary for Neville, who had launched a London version of the magazine. In 1971, when Neville and co-editors Jim Anderson and Felix Dennis were prosecuted for obscenity, Rowe spent every evening typing evidence to prepare for the next day’s hearing. Australian radical filmmaker Albie Thoms recalled in his memoir, My Generation, published shortly after his death last year, that he was once employed as OZ office manager when the three male editors were away: “The fact that OZ had not been left in (Rowe’s) capable hands smacked of male chauvinism and led to a discussion of the way it treated women. Marsha thought there was a need for a magazine that addressed women’s issues. But it would be several years before it became a reality.”
Rowe realised there were some “exceptional” women such as Germaine Greer who wrote for OZ and in 1970 co-edited a famous “Female Energy” issue. Greer had originally wanted to call it the “c . . . power” issue. Australian journalist Lillian Roxon also wrote extensively for OZ.
But Rowe was angry that the countercultural press was so intent on winning sexual freedom that it was objectifying women. “Louise Ferrier and I called a meeting of women in the underground press . . . We had important roles in the underground press, but women had no voice in the underground press.
“We did all the production and kept things going. It was through that I said, ‘Why don’t we start our own magazine?’ In six months we raised the money and had our first issue out.”
Ferrier did not join her at Spare Rib but Rosie Boycott, who went on to a successful career on Fleet Street, did. The following year the magazine became a collective. It continued for more than 20 years. Rowe played a key role in feminist publishing in Britain and is now writing her memoir.
Ferrier, who lives in Sydney, had a significant input into London OZ working alongside her then boyfriend, Neville. Their flat at 38a Palace Terrace Gardens was the OZ office for many years, but Ferrier says: “I was a very silent person, a very naive person. I was around and I was doing all the stuff, the secretarial stuff I guess.”
Alomes writes that Ferrier kept the magazine ticking over when Neville was “out and about”. She also posed for several covers, including a sensational one with dress designer Jenny Kee — both of them naked — in January 1969. Ferrier says that after OZ, she spent years trying to establish her own identity.
Walsh, who co-edited Sydney OZ but was not connected to the London version, says the magazine was a product of its time. “Let’s face it, women’s lib was a product of blokes like us in the 1960s and (the charge) that we hadn’t taken women seriously,” he says. “That doesn’t mean we were dismissive . . . (but) we could be a bit dominating.”